Heaphy Track

Easter 6-9 April 2012

At 7am on Wed 4 April, four of us met outside the Canterbury Museum to catch an Atomic Bus to Blenheim, arriving at noon. We had an hour to spare for lunch before catching another Atomic Bus to Nelson, arriving just after 2.30pm. We had arranged for Trek Express to take the four of us in their minibus right through to Browns Hut.

They were running late, but their phone number on my distributed trip notes quickly sorted things, so we had a latte at Oasis, beside the Nelson i-site and bus drop-off. After a fruit and ice cream stop in Motueka, we arrived at Brown Hut just on dark at 6.30pm with just a 5 minute walk from where the minibus dropped us off. We cooked our dinner on a PTC stove. All the rest of the huts had gas supplied. Dinner was the usual three course soup, main then instant pudding with fruit for dessert. Our two non-members on the trip were surprised at the dinner quantity having snacked all day on the trip up.

Thur dawned beautifully fine with not a breath of wind, or a cloud in the sky. We made quick work of the uphill climb on a 1 in 16 gradient, pretty much the ruling grade for the majority of the 82km Heaphy Track. We had a leisurely lunch in pristine fine weather outside the Aorere Camping Shelter which is about two thirds of the way up to Perry Saddle Hut. We stopped and climbed up to the view from Flannagans Lookout and very soon arrived mid-afternoon at Perry Saddle Hut. The hut is right on the saddle and with the old hut which we were booked into, the warden’s quarters slightly up the hill, toilets and the incomplete and blocked-off spacious new Perry Saddle Hut being built to replace the old one, the place looked more like a village. We had the place to ourselves until right on dark when others arrived to eventually completely fill the hut. This was the fourth time that I have walked the Heaphy Track, the first time being 1972, 40 years ago. The short, steep shortcut track on the leg from Browns to Perry Saddle to bypass the balloon loop of the 1 in 16 grade track has now been replaced with a quick zig zag without upsetting the gradient.

Fri again dawned beautifully fine. I had commented to the group that morning departure times from the hut are purely dictated by being exactly one and a half hours after the trip leader gets up. This worked almost exactly without even thinking about it for the whole trip. Usually we were away by 8am, so had plenty of time to savour the delights of the track while travelling through the Gouland Downs. A wonderful job has been done on restoring the downs hut with its 8 bunks and open though smoky fireplace. People can book this hut at the same price as the others. There’s no gas but at least you get peace and quiet. Few people choose to stop there for the night. This hut is the original on the track and before the Perry Saddle Hut would have been your first night coming east to west. 80% of those walking the track go east to west, 20% west to east. You have a downhill advantage going east to west as the Westland end is at sea level. I prefer E to W having done 4 east to west and one west to east. The latter was a return trip after going from east to west in 1992 about 20 years ago, just before the booking “Great Walk” system started. The Westland section is a beautiful finale to this great track.

This day’s leg covered 24km but it is the easiest 24km you will ever walk. We had lunch at Saxon Hut, built in the late 70’s. At that time a road was proposed, linking NW Nelson and Karamea which would have ruined the track. This period saw massive numbers of people walking the track. Heaphy Hut recorded over 120 staying on one night. Now numbers are limited by the booking system. After another leisurely fine weather lunch with some party members cooling off at a nearby pool, we continued our journey onto James McKay Hut. This hut is also up for replacement within the next 12 months. It is too small when fully booked. During the night I had a mouse encounter of the jumping-on-my-face kind, then, as I tried brushing it off, it ran into my sleeping bag where it thought it could hide until I found a small lump at my feet. The mouse slowly scurried out of my bag and onto the floor. In 40-odd years of tramping, that was a first for me and in a crowded Great Walks Hut was not very attractive to our overseas visitors. It’s now 20 years since the Heaphy Track had to be booked, giving DoC 20 years of revenue, yet same old facilities but it’s encouraging that DoC has funding for the replacement of the three main huts—Perry Saddle, James Mackay, and Heaphy and plan to do the job within the next two years. DoC also aims to replace most “one at a time” wire bridges with wooden deck ones so groups don’t have to wait to cross. It surprises me that this has taken so long; Great Walks tracks should have premium facilities to meet expectations of walkers paying a premium price. Heaphy hut fees are likely to increase to $50 but I’m sure most people will be happy to pay that for rodent-free facilities.

Sat, yet another fine morning and away at 8am once again—a descent now on a winding track leading towards the Heaphy River. There are beautiful bush and river vistas and plenty of birds to be seen along the way. We arrived at Lewis Hut right on lunch time, most people sat on the river’s edge of the Lewis River for lunch just before it merges with the bigger Heaphy River, right in front of the Lewis Hut. The next leg involves crossing two long suspension bridges, first across the Lewis River then across the Heaphy River. Both of these bridges are up for replacement. From here to Heaphy Hut the track follows the true left of the now very large watercourse of the Heaphy River. The vegetation is tall lowland native hardwood forest including kahikatea and more and more nikau palms. The Heaphy Hut is located with a fantastic view out to the Heaphy River mouth. The hut site has been occupied for a long time and a great historical record is available to read inside the Heaphy Hut.

Sun, with some cloud overnight, yet another fine day. The walk is all down the coast from the Heaphy River mouth all the way out to Kohaihai. We passed Katipo Creek with its camping shelter on the way. We had lunch at the Scotts Beach campsite after successfully negotiating Koura Beach at near high tide without incident. We climbed the last climb over the Kohaihai Bluff saddle and took photographs at the viewpoint on top. From here it was downhill to the Kohaihai River and road-end. We’d had dry feet for the whole walk over four days, but due to an exceptional high tide backing up the Kohaihai River, the last part of the track was under water. We arrived at the Kohaihai Shelter and used the free phone there to ring the backpackers we had booked in Karamea. Half an hour later they picked us up and took us to Rongo’s Backpackers near the hotel in Karamea. After luke-warm showers due to a Karamea water shortage. It hadn’t rained there for six weeks. We couldn’t resist the pub down the road and I think everyone ate the large whitebait sandwiches on offer there. We returned to the hotel for dinner in the evening.

Mon, another fine morning. We were picked up at 8.30am by Karamea Express and arrived in Westport around 10am. The driver for the whole journey gave us a history lesson of the road and the area. A cafe not far from the i-site in Westport provided a hearty all-day cooked breakfast and latte. The Intercity bus picked us up at 11am for a scenic trip along the coast down to Greymouth. A 30 minute stop at Punakaiki allowed time for ice creams and a walk around the pancake rocks. We were dropped off at the Greymouth Railway Station. Twenty minutes later we were gliding out on the Tranzalpine on its scenic trip back to Christchurch and the train’s outdoor viewing car proving a delight along the way. We arrived in Christchurch 20 minutes early at 5.45pm ending a delightful trip. Thanks guys.

We were: Mary McKeown, John Cridlin, Maureen Anderson and Leo Manders. (LM)